School Regionalization

(from Maine Townsman, February 2004)
By Lee Burnett, Freelance Writer  

       “Show me the money” was a memorable line from the 1996 movie Jerry McGuire.  But it’s also a refrain being heard regularly at the local level these days as educators digest the details and scope of Gov. Baldacci’s sweeping proposals to break up parochial control of education.

       Baldacci’s plan goes by many vague and bureaucratic sounding names. “Consolidation,” “regionalization,” and “administrative reorganization” are just a few. But the messsage is blunt: school districts must get serious about merging all or part of their operations with neighboring school districts or else they’ll be dragged into mediocrity by crushing costs and imminent and long-term enrollment declines.

       The bigger-is-better approach is also backed by research by the University of Southern Maine’s Center for Educational Policy, Applied Research, and Evaluation.  And the State Board of Education is already using its control of school construction funds to promote joint building projects between neighboring communities over separate standalone projects. Many school districts have already teamed up on their own in joint purchases of computer software, fuel oil, and busing services.

       The Baldacci administration is now pushing things even further. The blueprint is a report issued Jan. 20 by a Gubernatorial task force chaired by James Doughty, dean of the education department at Husson College in Bangor. The task force calls for merging the smallest of Maine’s 286 school districts into units of at least 1,000 students and preferably 2,500 students each with at least one high school of at least 300 students. Although the formation of new districts would be voluntary, the task force proposes incentives to encourage merging - a boost in state aid of 7.5 to 10 percent and state’s assumption of 25 to 50 percent of certain school construction debt.

       Whether this incentive money would be new money or a redistribution of existing state education aid is an important question that has yet to be answered.  The task force appears to be recommending that the incentive money come from additional state funds for GPA, but the legislative response to this recommendation is difficult to predict.

According to the report:

       “The evidence indicates that many of these smaller districts and schools are very costly; in some cases, approximately $400 to $600 more per child than in larger districts. And there is evidence that larger school districts may achieve the same or better results as the smaller ones,” according to the report of “The Task Force on Increasing Efficiency and Equity in the Use of K-12 Education Resources.”

       “Clearly, we must address these challenges if we are to insure that all our children receive a quality K-12 education. We must find more efficient ways to operate our public school system to ensure equity of education opportunities for all of Maine’s youth,” according to the report.

       The task’s force’s most controversial remedy is the abolition of the decentralized school union form of administration (some 33 school unions have been forged by 117 communities in Maine) and yoking those schools into the more centrally controlled school administrative districts. More on that later.

       The task force report (see summary in sidebar story) is now being drafted into centerpiece legislation of the Baldacci administration.

No projections

       In its gradual shrinking of the number of school districts in Maine, consolidation is advertised as a sensible alternative to more drastic responses to the galloping cost of local education. It is neither punitive - as would be a tax cap favored by Carol Palesky of the Maine Taxpayers Action Network. - nor would it be hugely expensive to the state as are various property tax relief proposals under consideration by the Maine Legislature. Consolidation even has some populist appeal in its undermining of education fiefdoms.

       But the task force has produced no financial projections for the supposed savings of abolishing school boards, thinning the ranks of superintendents, and extending bus routes. That’s a big problem in the mind of Rep. Mary Andrews, R-York, a member of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs. Andrews gave her blunt assessment at a recent legislative hearing.

        “There are many, many, many questions. I saw no figures they would actually save money,” said Andrews. The absence of projected savings is particularly problematic since the incentives will plainly cost the state money, she said.

       She expressed concern that such a major initiative is being pushed “too rapidly” and said she “certainly won’t” support any consolidation plan that lacks a clear projection of costs and benefits.

       “The suggested incentives include taking over school debt, a bonus on your GPA, etcetera, etcetera,” she said. “... And they say the department of education needs more resources to do this. In other words, more money. I don’t get any figures that it would actually result in x amount of savings.”

       One of the gurus of consolidation is David Silvernail. He’s director of USM’s Center for Education Policy, Applied Research and Evaluation and he’s vice-chairman of the task force. Silvernail said it is difficult to generate the financial information that Andrews wants since the incentives are voluntary. Only as actual school districts with known cost structures begin merging will the costs and savings begin to emerge, he said.

       “As long as it’s voluntary, we can’t tell you (the cost),” he said. “The task force decided this should not be mandatory. That’s a recognition of reality but it makes it difficult to calculate cost of incentives or the potential savings. ... There’s a Catch-22. If we knew who would take advantage of it, there’d be no choice.”

       Silvernail won’t even use as a reference point an earlier study projecting savings of $40 million from school administrative consolidation. The figure comes from a hotly disputed study last year by Philip Trostel, an associate professor of economics at the University of Maine. Trostel projected savings by expanding the average size of school districts in Maine by fifty percent to 3,300 students, which is about the national average.  Silvernail said Trostel’s analysis failed to account for numerous variables and noted that Trostel himself footnoted his research with a disclaimer that school district size accounts for just 17 percent of the factors influencing school spending. (Trostel also conceded in an interview last year that the savings he projected assumed the closure of some small schools.)

       The savings from consolidation come - not strictly from combining governing bodies - but from making decisions on a regional basis rather than local  basis, proponents say. Larger districts have more flexibility in deploying staff, reconfiguring grade groupings and making more efficient use of buildings. Larger districts also may have the resources to afford advanced placement classes and other specialized programs.

       A track record exists for legislating incentives without projections of savings even though Andrews insists on clearly spelled out savings before she’ll go along with consolidation. Case in point: the original Sinclair Act in 1958, the law that triggered the formation of school administrative districts in rural Maine.

       Silvernail said the appropriations (under Sinclair) were passed after-the-fact as the bills piled up. The incentives developed by the task force were derived from the incentives used in the Sinclair Act, he said.

How costly are Maine schools?       

       Silvernail stands by his conviction that large school districts are less expensive to operate than small ones. His research, adopted by the task force, shows that average cost per student rises as school district size shrinks. For example: $6,590 is the average cost per student in the 22 districts in Maine with more than 2,500 students. The average costs per student rises to $6,867 for districts in the 1,000-2,500 student range, and rises to $7,100 per student for  districts in the 500 to 1,000 student range.  The trend becomes more pronounced as district size shrinks further, topping out at $14,230 per student for districts smaller than 125 students. (There are 88 such tiny districts.) The task force’s conclusion: “efficiencies could be increased and equity improved through the creation of larger school districts.”

       But use of the term “average cost per student” is misleading since it obscures huge variations in actual spending levels. A layperson scanning computer printouts is challenged to discern any connection at all between school district size and cost per student. Plainly, some large school districts are run very inexpensively, such as SAD 57 in rural York County ($4,488 per student), SAD 17 in Oxford County ($4,685 per pupil), and SAD 60 along the New Hampshire border in York County ($5,155 per pupil). But some large school districts are very expensive, such as Portland ($6,393 per student) and South Portland ($6,642 per student). It is also true that the most expensive districts in Maine are the smallest ones.  That includes island school districts and many in the hinterlands, such as The Forks Plantation( $9,151) Dallas Plantation ($8,038) and Baileyville ($8,231). But numerous small  districts operate very inexpensively, such as SAD 4 in the Guilford area ($4,581), SAD 38 in the Dixmont area ($4,554), Franklin ($4,390), Perry ($4,647),  Arundel ($4,687), and others.

       As Silvernail himself readily concedes, administrative size is one of dozens of factors that influence cost.  Some communities are more affluent than others and choose to spend more. Some communities with broad tax bases are less sensitive to the price of education. Some schools are just plain more expensive to operate. High costs may be due to a labor shortage that drives up teacher salaries or because the schools are located on islands or other remote places. Still other schools are expensive because a high percentage of students either speak English as a second language, come from disadvantaged homes or have special education needs.

       Dennison Gallaudet is superintendent in the small town of Richmond, which educates 616 students for a below average price of $5,268 per student. He is also active in the Small High Schools Coalition, a group of two dozen superintendents fighting the Baldacci consolidation plans.

       “I think the savings are dubious,” Gallaudet. “If the savings are there, why are they reluctant to put them on the table?” There’s a tone of incredulity in his voice. “They can’t quantify the savings, so we have to do this on faith?”

       Gallaudet said experience in other states suggests that administrative consolidation is merely a prelude to closing schools. Creating larger districts reduces the relative power of each school’s constituency, he pointed out. “ School closures will come right after,” he said.  “It’s really a Trojan horse.” Silvernail does not dispute Gallaudet’s assertion.

       “Personally, I think there are going to be some closings. We’re going to be losing 15,000 to 20,000 students between now and the year 2015. The task force believed the residents in the local community are in the best position to make those decisions. Communities that merge school operations may have more options to reconfigure grade groupings within schools than separately,” he said.

       Schools are already closing and will continue to close with or without school administrative consolidation. Maine’s school age population, which has hovered in the 200,000 to 210,000 range for the past decade, will plunge to 187,000 students during the next decade, according to projections by the State Planning Office. The loss of  15,000 students amounts to the loss of  60 average size elementary schools or 30 average sized high schools. Empty classrooms and partially filled buildings will be most noticeable in northern and eastern Maine, but no region will be spared.

       For a glimpse of the pain involved in school consolidations go to the struggling paper mill towns of Millinocket, East Millinocket and Medway or go to the tiny upper Androscoggin River valley towns of Peru, Dixfield, Canton and Carthage, which form SAD 21.

       In the Millinocket area, consolidation talks began with the financial shocks caused by the drastically downsizing Brascan paper mills. The state encouraged talks leading to closure of one of the high schools, but that was stalled by hometown pride and the fierce sports rivalry between Stearns High School in Millinocket  (340 students) and Schenk High School in East Millinocket (211 students). East Millinocket viewed talks as a “hostile takeover” and some parents said they’d rather send students to a private charter school than to their cross-town rival 10 miles away. The three communities are now talking about merging administration but closing no buildings, according to Maine Commissioner of Education Susan Gendron.

       In the upper Androscoggin Valley, consolidation talks began when the State Board of Education told Canton (with 53 students in a K-4 elementary school) and neighboring Peru (with 180 students in a K-8 elementary school) that they wouldn’t get construction money unless they consolidated construction plans into a single building. The towns couldn’t agree on a cost-sharing formula (Dixfield balked at assuming the lion’s share of SAD 21 towns’ costs). Now, if Peru doesn’t join the district, Canton has threatened to join Livermore or Buckfield in a school district, which would send tax bills soaring in the remaining two SAD 21 towns, says Gendron. “They’d still have to operate a high school and a middle school and with declining enrollment .. we have projected they’d have to come up with an additional $1 million to cover operating costs.”

       Gendron, a former school superintendent in Windham, said she believed in consolidation then and even more convinced of it since being named commissioner.  She said she sees “great inequities of what’s available” across the state.  It troubles her when she sees communities voting to preserve certain elective subjects even though enrollments are tiny. “Those are costs that the entire community shares in,” she said.

       The call to abolish school unions is the most controversial recommendation of the Doughty task force. Pre-dating school administrative districts, unions were formed by small communities  that could not afford to hire a superintendent on their own. (School unions are located generally in the most isolated parts of the state.) In a union, communities share the service of a superintendent, but they retain separate local school boards, separate school budgets and separate schools. Some 33 of these hybrid organizations continue to exist today because the 117 member communities - either out of a heightened sense of local control or relative affluence - resisted the financial incentives to form more centrally controlled school administrative districts, or only regionalized at the higher grades (e.g., school union/CSD consolidation).

       According to consolidation proponents, school unions are the poster child for inefficient school management. School superintendents answer to many bosses, and do virtually every task - from setting payroll and school calendars to administering labor contracts and developing policy - three or four times over .

       “It is inefficient in that five times a month I go to a board of education that does the same things - approve the same policies, the same calendars,” said Richard Abramson, superintendent in School Union 42, which is comprised of the central Maine towns of Mount Vernon, Manchester, Readfield and Wayne. “It’s very difficult to be a superintendent.” He says Union 42 is efficient in consolidating busing and bus maintenance under one roof. Abramson said meshing labor contracts would also improve efficiency. Union 42 is also talking with neighboring school districts about further cooperative ventures.

       “I think many superintendents will tell you the worst form of governance is a school union,” said Abramson. Still, “I have to say I enjoy it.”

       Abramson said he appreciates “the connection” that school union towns feel toward their schools. “People tell you that keeping control at the local level makes them feel more involved.”

       Consolidation may save money in some areas, but it will come at the cost of longer bus rides, more distant and bureaucratic administration and the erosion of town identity, say critics. Something valuable will be lost - the community involvement and personalized education that are hallmarks of small schools.

       “I think we’re deluding ourselves if we think we won’t be seriously sacrificing the quality of our schools,” say Barbara Merrill of Appleton, the de facto leader of the opposition to abolition of school unions. “I just think John Baldacci is heading in such a wrong direction.”

       Merrill, a lawyer lobbyist in Augusta, said she and her husband Phil, a well-connected Democratic activist who is now chairman of the Appleton school board, deliberately chose to raise their two children in the small town of Appleton because they wanted to be directly involved in their education.  Appleton has a K-8 school with 137 students.

       “We’re in that school every day,” she said.

       Dissolving School Union 69, comprised of Appleton, Hope and Lincolnville, and consolidating administration with Camden and Rockport towns of SAD 28, would save no money, she said. The cost of education in Appleton is $6,179 per student, in SAD 28 it is about $20 per head higher at $6,198.

       Merrill says the Appleton school is the glue that binds the community together. The town recently rallied to preserve an elementary French program, over the recommendation of the school board, which she doubts would have happened in a larger district. Christmas concerts are huge events that draw town residents without any children in the schools. “I’ve never seen that kind of support for a school,” she said.

       Merrill fears the dissolution of the union would kill community spirit, rob Appleton of any effective voice in the running of the schools and might possibly be the death knell for the school.

       “The last thing we expected when we moved here was that we’d be putting our kids on a bus for four hours a day to a school where they don’t know the principal’s name,or more importantly he doesn’t know their name,” Merrill said.

       “The assault on unions is a far bigger assault than any casino or racino could be,” she said. “The small school is the heart of small towns. It’s the only community we have.”

       There is some irony that Maine’s small schools are under attack. Ever since the Columbine massacre in 1999, small schools have been embraced as the most effective antidote to the alienation that can lead to violence. Maine’s small schools have won new admirers because of their high graduation rates, infrequent violence, and the sense of belonging rather than isolation.  The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded the state $10 million two years ago to grow small-school cultures in schools of all sizes.

       Small school advocates fiercely contest the notion that small schools are more expensive. Small schools make up for higher operating costs with their higher graduation rates. If costs are calculated not on a per student basis, but on a per graduate basis, then small schools are no less costly than bigger schools, they say.

       Maine already has the smallest schools east of the Mississippi River. The average size of elementary schools (223 students), middle schools (370 students), and high schools (556 students) are about a third smaller than national averages, according to the Digest of Education Statistics.

       “Maine will always have small schools,” said Commissioner Gendron. “Even our largest schools are small by comparison to other states. ... We’re not about closing schools. It’s about creating efficiencies.”

       If the Baldacci administration is so certain of savings from consolidation, why not allow merging to occur on its own without taxpayer-funded incentives? Gendron says financial incentives are still essential because the costs come first while the savings may not be seen for a few years “Sometimes it takes transitional steps,” said Gendron. “Start-up funds help.”

       Is school consolidation an idea whose time has arrived?